When is a state not a state? When it is Azawad, the newest and largest state recognized by no other state. Azawad after a brief rebellion beginning in January successfully declared independence April 6 as a consequence of last year’s conflict in Libya and political instability in Mali. As such it enters a unique collection of states that are either recognized by only a few nations or none and are international anomalies that can often prove awkward and inconvenient.
When you look at a map of the world you will find places with limited international recognition. When I was still in high school Western Sahara or Sahrawi was the most notable. More have emerged since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Most recently was the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a consequence of Russian intervention in 2008. International recognition of an independent state has varied throughout the years. However, the general rule for inclusion is a polity must claim statehood; lack recognition from at least one state and either have control over a territory, population, or government capable of entering into relations with other states or be recognized as a state by one other state.
By and large the international community prefers conflicts be settled peacefully within that nation’s borders, but the aforementioned breakup of Yugoslavia changed this. The use of violence and ethnic cleansing on a scale not seen since World War II compelled international intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 and then four years later in Kosovo. Fearing a repeat of the same death toll in the previous conflict NATO forces intervened, but without approval from the United Nations Security Council. As such the successor state of Yugoslavia, Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo as an independent state to this day. Moreover, Serbia’s long time ally Russia which condemned the move later used similar humanitarian reasons for its intervention in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The previous example was a culmination of Russia looking for an opportunity to demonstrate it was still a force to be reckoned with as well as embarrass NATO by using similar justification to aid the Abkhazians and Ossetians. It also proved extremely hypocritical since Russia fought a brutal campaign against Chechnya for trying to break away. Recognizing an independent state can often be self serving like when the United States supported Panama’s independence from Columbia for the sake of building a canal in the former. However, such intervention would have been unwanted and condemned if the British or French recognized and aided the Confederate States during the American Civil War. Recognition and intervention in a state formed by rebellious groups is unwise since just about every nation has some rebellious faction that wants independence. As such supporting a new state could be a means of attacking another by proxy as well as opening up that state to similar attacks. Iran, Iraq, and Turkey have had various conflicts over the years, but neither will ever support a Kurdish independence group in the other state because if that group was successful they would rally the Kurds within their borders to secede. For the sake of order and peace states avoid doing this.
Azawad’s predominant ethnic group, the Tuaregs have rebelled against the government of Mali three other times, but it was only with the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya that they gained the advantage to succeed. Gaddafi employed Tuaregs in his military and when the war ended they returned to Mali with the weapons and training to successfully start a fourth rebellion. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad scored a series of victories, but gained a most unexpected advantage with a coup d’état. Due to the inept handling of the war the military overthrew President Amadou Toumani on March 21, but the ensuing chaos only made the situation worse and the MNLA were able to take effective control of Mali’s three northernmost provinces before declaring independence April 6. However, it is recognized by no one and two days later the Malian junta agreed to return power to the civilian leaders. Moreover, the Economic Community of West African States which pressured the military to relinquish power is preparing a force of 3000 to aid the Malian government, but it could be a bitter struggle against an opponent fueled with a mix of nationalism and Islamic fervor.
Thinking critically it might be for the best to let Mali have its independence and spare the potential lives and treasure that will be spent to subdue it. After a decades long civil war the people of South Sudan gained independence last year, but only because it was a negotiated separation recognized by the international community. What does Mali stand to gain with compelling a people who largely do not wish to be a part of a nation that is the product of France’s scramble for colonies in Africa in the late 19th century? International boundaries were drawn with no concern for the ethnic groups affected and Mali is no exception. Moreover, the Tuareg while not a victim of ethnic cleansing like Bosnia, Kosovo, or Rwanda does not benefit as equally as rest of Mali possibly because of corruption or limited resources. On the other hand Mali might be more than generous with one of the poorest regions in Africa where the Sahara Desert is slowly encroaching. Independence might actually release an economic burden from Mali and in time Azawad might learn that their problems are not attributable to Mali, but geography. Some independence movements have been stifled not by violence, but the realization that they would be economically harmed if they declared independence from a wealthy nation. Then again Azawad might have deposits of oil and uranium that could make it too lucrative to release.
In addition to the aforementioned legal and political problems oil and uranium might have some bearing as to why the powerful and wealthy nations do not want to see an independent Azawad because of the lost potential mining and drilling rights, but there’s also the matter of Azawad’s cobelligerent group Ansar Dine as well as the association with al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. While the MNLA is considered to be secular the Islamic Ansar Dine is not and seeks to impose sharia law on not just Azawad, but all of Mali. The last thing the world needs is another safe haven for Al-Qaeda as well as any nation taking a backward slide into theocratic rule. However, for the time being Azawad is a de facto independent state and may not be easy to subdue.
The Malian army is in worse shape than it was before and the troops provided by ECOWAS might not make much of a difference except eliminate MNLA which would leave the radical Ansar Dine as the sole power in Azawad. There is also the potential humanitarian crisis since Northern Mali is short on arable land and along with desertification and continued drought the problem will be even worse if there is an ongoing conflict. If the MNLA realize how dangerous Ansar Dine is as an ally they might be willing to negotiate for greater autonomy over independence which could serious bloodshed. Otherwise this could be as bad as the Sudanese Civil Wars.